4 Very Real Ways Your Body Suffers When You Skimp on Sleep

Lack of Zzzs affects more than you realize.

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Whether the culprit is a looming deadline at work, racing thoughts about that surprise party you’re planning for your partner, or staying up late for a Netflix binge, we all have sleepless nights from time to time. When it becomes a problem, however, is when skimping on sleep becomes part of your lifestyle (or one of these five seemingly innocent sleep-sabotaging habits).

You know you feel better after a good night’s sleep. Duh. But you might not realize it’s not just about having energy and getting your beauty rest. There are some other serious, not-so-obvious ways your body suffers from lack of Zzzs. Here’s what happens to your body when you don’t get enough sleep.

1. Lack of sleep can derail your diet. Sleep deprivation can cause your hunger hormones—ghrelin and leptin—to go out of whack. Ghrelin stimulates appetite, while leptin suppresses it. When your body is sleep-deprived, your ghrelin goes up and leptin goes down which may cause you to eat more, and can increase cravings for salty, sweet, starchy, and other junky foods. A Stanford study of about 1,000 participants found that those who slept less than eight hours a night generally had a higher body mass index (BMI) than those who managed to get eight hours of shut-eye each night.

2. Sleepless nights can increase your chances of catching a cold. Severe sleep loss can tax your immune system and make it harder for you to fight off infections. One small Carnegie Mellon University study found that over a period of two weeks, participants who got less than seven hours of sleep were three times more likely to catch the common cold than those who got eight hours.

3. Getting too little shut-eye is linked with depression and anxiety. After just one night of not enough sleep, you might feel irritable, short-tempered, or stressed the next day, but once you return to a healthy sleep schedule, you’ll feel back to normal. However, longer-term sleep issues like insomnia—the most common of sleep disorders—are often a symptom and complication of certain mental health disorders, like depression and anxiety. The relationship between depression, anxiety, and insomnia is complex. For example, experts don’t know whether being depressed or anxious causes insomnia, whether insomnia influences your odds of developing mental health issues, or whether there are underlying risk factors or conditions that affect both. Take obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), for instance, which is when a person may experience pauses in breathing five to 30 times per hour or more during sleep. People with depression are five times more likely to suffer from sleep-disordered breathing, like OSA, according to a Stanford study. (Learn more about common sleep problems.)

4. Insomnia can also affect your risk of chronic disease—like high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. This could be because sleeping too little causes disruptions in underlying and processes like glucose metabolism and inflammation. OSA in particular is strongly connected with high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

We all have sleepless nights from time to time, but if you’re having trouble sleeping for longer than a week or it’s starting to affect your quality of life during the day, see your doctor.